Zola Jesus, hometown hero

By Lizzie Ryan


EMMIE talked influences, school, Wisconsin and more with Zola Jesus before her stop in Madison, where she played for a jam-packed Memorial Union.

You attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison before graduating and moving to Los Angeles. What were some of your largest challenges while managing being a full-time student and following your dreams as a musician?

Zola Jesus: Oh my gosh, just the biggest one was trying to make that happen, trying to make that work. I would be touring while still in school, and then there were exams, and then I was in Europe during final exams.

Wow, crazy.

ZJ: Yes, it was. I loved school, I wanted to stay in school, but I really wanted to pursue music. You figure out how to manage both and you work extremely hard. Thankfully, I had a lot of professors that were understanding.

What’s the largest sacrifice you’ve made to pursue your dream in music?

ZJ: When you’re doing something that you love and are so passionate about, nothing feels like a sacrifice. I don’t feel like I’ve made any sacrifices. There are things I’ve had to do—work really hard, not sleep for a couple of weeks—but it never feels like work. It’s like you’re on autopilot by that point. You want to be doing what you’re doing so badly that you enjoy everything. So, I don’t know. I don’t consider anything I’ve done a sacrifice.

You’ve performed here in Madison, Wisconsin before, and we’re so excited to have you back. What is your favorite song to perform?

ZJ: “Nail,” actually. That song is the most emotional when I perform, and I really like that it’s acapella—it’s challenging. It feels very raw.

What was your daily routine for writing your newest album, Taiga?

ZJ: I lived on this island off of Washington you had to take an hour ferry ride to get to—very isolated. I only went into town once a week, maybe once every couple of weeks, so I had a house on the water and would wake up and write and write until I went to sleep. When I wasn’t writing I was walking around by the water, by the forest, and that’s kind of where I feel most and home. I was just soaking that up.

I read that your childhood in Merrill, Wisconsin really shaped your music, and it was the secluded location that affected your songwriting. Can you elaborate on that?

ZJ: Growing up in an area that’s so far from cultural hubs… it was three hours from Minneapolis, three hours from Madison, even, so to get anywhere with anything going on is out of the question. You really have to invent your own world to entertain yourself and to discover things on your own organically. In that way, I didn’t have a lot—you live in Wisconsin, you make your own fun. I feel like northern Wisconsin influenced me in that way.

How did you channel your childhood that was filled with nature and the woods of northern Wisconsin into the music?

ZJ: It’s partly subconscious and conceptual, but I think the most important thing is having that seclusion again, because with the record before this, I wrote it in downtown Los Angeles. Returning to that peace that feels very much like home to me—that allowed a different type of writing and liberation and empowerment in my creativity that I kind of lost when I left WI—that was the most important thing. Also, being a part of the natural world made me think of human relationships to nature and why we feel so separated from it. These things are very much a part of the lyrics in Taiga.

Who are your musical inspirations?

ZJ: That is hard to say. When you’re making music, if you’re inspired by other musicians, I feel like it’s almost like cheating, in a way. I prefer to be inspired by things that aren’t musical because it’s more work to try to transliterate the inspiration into a different form.

Like the forests that inspired Taiga.

ZJ: Yeah, or architecture, experiences, film, things like that.

How does architecture inspire you for a song?

ZJ: I’m really inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. There’s just a bunch of architects, like mid-century modern, Tadao Ando [Japanese minimalist architect], one guy based [in Seattle] that I’m totally obsessed with, Tom Kundig. I like buildings because they are creating a physical environment, and it’s just like a utopia. These architects are trying to create this ideal microcosm that people can live in, can work in, and they have all these different utilities. It’s utilitarian, but it’s also it’s trying to oversee an ideal for humanity and for the world, and I’d like to be in those spaces and try to think about the music. What kind of music would be playing for the piece of architecture I’m inspired by? I work off of that. It’s all part of this bigger universe.

Do you think you’ll return to the forests of Wisconsin, where you grew up, to gain inspiration for another album?

ZJ: Actually, I’m planning on moving back there. It’s interesting. I’ve lived in a bunch of different places, but once you leave the place where you’ve grown up with such strong roots… I feel like I’ve been trying to find Wisconsin in all these other parts of the world. I think I just need to go back.

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